Over these past few weeks, I have delivered a series of both sermons and Torah study sessions that have put our ancestral patriarchs and matriarchs under a high-powered microscope. The goal of the presentations was to teach how the later rabbinic overlay of interpretive (creative?) commentary tended to glorify them and their attributes significantly beyond what the texts themselves would imply.
As a religious and observant Jew, I live and practice what might fairly be called “Rabbinic Judaism.” The biblical texts themselves hardly constitute a complete modus vivendi for one seeking to follow the God of Israel. The rabbis used their commentaries, both legal and extra-legal, to flesh out what they understood Judaism to be as a system. In so doing, they painted images of our biblical heroes that- at least in my opinion- air brushed their flaws, sometimes dramatically. It doesn’t mean we can’t revere the patriarchs and matriarchs; that is hardly true. It simply means that looking at them as the text actually paints them is, shall we say, an eye-opening exercise. It also means that within that exercise, we are all destined to take our individual places on the continuum of faith and doubt.
I think it fair to say that the sermons and study sessions have caught the attention of my congregation. Some have loved them, others have been threatened by them, and still others found them intellectually gratifying but spiritually lacking. I have loved the feedback… they’re listening- closely!
In that context, I couldn’t help but notice a large billboard on the trip back this evening from my family’s annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to my sister-in-law in Montclair, New Jersey. We were on Route 3, just past the new Giants Stadium, approaching the Lincoln Tunnel, and all of a sudden, there it was.
At first glance, with a classic image of the Three Wise Men on camels, it looked like your basic Christmas greeting card. But out of the corner of my eye I saw the word “myth,” and I realized that something else was going on there. As I was driving by, I managed to read the entire billboard. “You know it’s a myth: this season, celebrate reason!” The billboard was sponsored by the American Atheist Association, or something very similar to that.
I mentioned to my wife how similar in theme that billboard was to the general subject of my sermons, and she responded- insightfully- that is was more to the doubt side of that aforementioned continuum than we could ever endorse.
True enough. Atheists don’t struggle with faith and doubt; they know that’s it’s a myth, and their struggle ends there.
My approach to our tradition’s sacred text- and my movement’s- doesn’t allow me to ignore the mythic components of our biblical narrative. Actually, my encounter with those components is fascinating to me, and I’m grateful for the spiritual struggle it generates. If anything, I feel sorry for the atheists who allow the inevitable doses of myth that are part and parcel of all religious traditions to disallow the possibility of faith. How impoverishing that is! And really- what is to be accomplished by throwing a wet towel on people’s joy during the holiday season? Isn’t reason an equally inadequate tool for explaining all the mysteries of life and their meaning?
No one said faith was going to be easy…
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation